Capitalism and the vaccine mandate

Should workers face hunger and homelessness if they choose not to take the vaccine?

In the interest of public health — or, if you like, as part of some kind of sinister collaboration with Big Pharma — the Biden administration is mandating Covid vaccinations for employees in certain sectors (namely federal employees and contractors as well as the military). It has also floated the possibility of a national mandate for anyone who works for a sufficiently large firm, though the White House backed off from this a few months ago.

Regardless, the few mandates we do have has sparked some controversy on the left. On Thursday, journalist Dan Cohen put the issue succinctly:

I think this is a reasonable concern, and I also think that socialists should know better than to dismiss it with “refuseniks only have themselves to blame” rhetoric. But unlike Dan, I do not think this is the fundamental question — because you can agree that workers should not face hardship for refusing to get vaccinated and still support a vaccine mandate.

The problem of precarity

Unless you are one of the exceedingly few people who can live off of your investments and assets, modern society faces you with a basic choice: sell your labor in exchange for wages or die. And if you decide not to die, of course, then you immediately find yourself at the mercy of everyone who has any say over your employment. If your boss tells you that you need to work a second shift tomorrow, you have to do it. If the government says that you have to have a certain license to do a certain job, you have to get it.

If you are a worker and you object to this state of affairs there are two general solutions.

The first is to try to work within this system in order to improve this situation. If you don’t like the things your job requires you to do in order to survive, you look for a better one. Or you try to strike out on your own. Or you try to negotiate with your boss or with government to see if you can change your terms of employment. These are by far the most popular solutions, though as any worker can tell you they usually aren’t very effective.

The second solution is much less common, though I happen to think it’s the right one. Instead of trying to work within this system, you can recognize that workers should always have what they need to survive even if they are not employed. Just provide them with food, housing, and so on, and then the dangers of precarious employment completely lose their sting. In our world, we treat these necessities as commodities that one has to purchase in the market; but we can simply de-commodify them and treat them as something that everyone is entitled to, like the air we breathe.

The first solution, of course, is the solution proposed by capitalism. The second is the solution proposed by basically any anti-capitalist politics you can name, including the critique of capitalism laid out by Karl Marx. There are several reasons that I think Marx’s solution is the right one, but here I’m going to point out one that, on the US left, is often underappreciated: workers should be able to collectively regulate their labor conditions through the state even if any particular worker disagrees. This is just the basic premise of living in a society, and it is only within the hyper-individualistic ideological dominion of capitalism that anyone ever considers it controversial.

The sovereignty of workers

Confusion on this point is common in the United States even among socialists and communists1, so it deserves some clarification. The state often acts in ways that are irrational, unjust, and at odds with the interests of workers. It is one thing to insist that we must oppose the state when this happens; this is just what class solidarity requires.

It is quite another, however, to ground our opposition in the notion that individual interests and dissent must necessarily prevail against state power. This amounts to opposing the very possibility of collective governance of any kind, which will always find itself at odds with particular individuals. That kind of objection is certainly convenient for the handful of rich capitalists who want to protect their wealth and power against everyone else, but it is directly at odds with worker efforts to exercise our collective sovereignty.

Marx places this conflict between individual interests and collective sovereignty at the center of class struggle. In Capital V.3, for example, he discusses the problems that emerge from small farm ownership as opposed to large collectively managed farms:

All criticism of small-scale landownership is ultimately reducible to criticism of private property as a barrier and obstacle to agriculture…It is simply that this barrier and obstacle which all private property in land places to agricultural production and the rational treatment, maintenance and improvement of the land itself, develops in various forms, and in quarreling over these specific forms of the evil its ultimate root is forgotten.

All of the elements of Marx’s basic critique of capitalism are here. First, he describes the problem of private property as a problem in which an individual’s “rights” are at odds with rational collective management. Second, he identifies this as the ultimate root of our economic problems, the one from which they all emerge. And third, he notes that we often fail to recognize that this is the root of the problem when we end up quarrelling over the specific ways that it manifests itself.

Disease control

The implications for our debate over vaccine mandates seem, to me, pretty straightforward. Anticapitalists can, of course, have an empirical argument over whether the vaccines are effective, or a policy argument over whether mandating them is actually in the public interest; we can even talk about whether these mandates also benefit private interests, like Johnson and Johnson or Moderna.

But what does not make sense, for the anticapitalist at least, is to frame our objection as a collective imposition on individual interests, or to blame the problems of capitalism — precarity, hunger, homelessness, and so on — on anything other than the commodification of necessities. If this is the wrong policy then it is the wrong policy on empirical grounds, not because of something profoundly unjust about the state telling individuals what to do. If you do not want vaccine refusers to go homeless or hungry, then you should be arguing for public housing and a generous welfare state, not for some right to keep a particular job even if it’s endangering the public health.

Capitalists know perfectly well what is at stake in this framing. They have labored to shift the vaccine debate away from a scientific debate precisely because they want to use this as an opportunity to assert bourgeois individualism against collective governance, and to blame poverty and precarity on Big Government interventions. Liberals may find that framing persuasive, but socialists should know better.

1

I blame the persistence of a certain kind of “anarchism” in the US which, dismissing the anarchist tradition’s historical acceptance of justifiable authority, takes the libertarian position that authority can never be justified. (Chomsky expands on this here.) We should not, of course, be surprised to find that yet another strain of “radical left” politics grounded in bourgeois individualism has gained currency in the US.